I’m sitting in my camp chair watching the fish jump when Larry, my camp neighbor, comes over.
“You know the mama grizzly with two cubs I told you about yesterday? I saw her this morning around 5:30. She was right over there by that rock.” He points to a huge boulder on the opposite bank of the stream that flows to the side of my campsite.
“Have a seat, Larry.” Lena, his border collie and blue heeler mix, trots up to me for some attention.
“That grizzly was huge! Her cubs were the size of full-grown black bears.”
I ask him how he could tell they were grizzlies.
He explains that grizzlies have a hump below the back of her neck. “That mama grizzly comes down to the stream for the fish that people catch and release. Most of the trout caught on the lake and thrown back . . . . They end up dying and floating into the stream. That’s what brings her here.”
When it comes to bears or most anything else having to do with these mountains, Larry knows what he’s talking about.
Larry used to guide parties on horseback on trails all over this area, often involving 50-60 horses, including the pack horses that carried tents, equipment, and supplies. He had the help of a wrangler and a cook. Some of the trails he made himself. He’d take “dudes” high up in the mountains. He also led hunts for bighorn sheep.
Larry has had several encounters with bears. He can tell you their age in a glance, and he can explain their behaviors.
“Bears are psycho,” Larry remarks offhandedly.
Lena brings me her Frisbee to throw. I give it a toss and she sprints after it, bringing it back to me in a flash. Spike is at my feet and the hair on his back stands up whenever Lena returns the Frisbee to me. I pet Spike to help him deal with his jealousy. Bridget shows her teeth. Even though she would like nothing more than to rip Lena’s face off, I know she’ll control herself. Spike’s the one with anger management issues.
I quietly wait for Larry to continue.
“They really are psycho. You can see it in their eyes. Don’t ever look a bear straight in the eyes. They take it as an act of aggression. I did that once. Years ago I was driving my parents (farmers from Nebraska) around in their old Mercury up here and we spotted a bear way off. I got out of the car to take a picture for them and, by the time I walked around the car, the bear had come all the way to the ditch by the road. He came up out of that ditch and we met eye-to-eye about twelve feet apart. No, you don’t ever want to look a bear in the eye.”
Larry lives about 65 miles from here in a house he built himself. He sadly reveals that his doctor told him he had to sell his horses and quit the trail rides.
By this time I’ve thrown the Frisbee for Lena numerous times, and she shows no signs of quitting. Larry gets up and hangs the Frisbee on a tree branch. “That’s enough, Lena. Go lay down.” Larry has had a full life, rich with outdoor adventures, but not without tragedy.
Larry has me over to his campsite for dinner.
I watch as he expertly cooks up some one-inch thick halibut steaks in a frying pan over wood coals in the fire ring. He also cooks sliced potatoes and onions wrapped in foil which he turns frequently to keep from burning. The halibut sizzles in the butter to a golden brown. Larry dishes out our portions of fish, potatoes and onions onto paper plates. We sit at his picnic table with Lena and the crew at our feet. The dinner would have been delicious eaten anywhere, but it is particularly good eaten at a picnic table next to a mountain lake right at sunset.
Lena brings out a plate of pork cutlets. “These got freezer burn so I cooked them for the dogs.” We give the chunks of pork to Lena, Bridget, and Spike. After dinner we all sit by the fire. Larry tells me more stories from his past, including fishing and camping in Alaska, visiting Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty in New York City, and eating a five-pound lobster in a fancy restaurant in Connecticut.
Three girls around 18 or so come up the slope from the lake.
They’ve been out canoeing all day and now they’re dragging the canoe up to their campsite which is across the campground road from my camp and Larry’s camp. The girls are from Utah. They have a tent set up.
After talking with the girls for a few minutes, they go to their campsite.
Larry resumes the story he was telling me, but is interrupted by Lena’s fierce barking. We assume it’s another fisherperson walking the path along the lake. The campsites slope to the lake so steeply that you can’t always see who is on the path. Larry tries to quiet Lena but she insists on making a fuss. Finally Larry gets up and bangs on the metal bear box with a big stick. The loud boom brings Lena to a low crouch and she stops barking.
Darkness creeps over the campsite, so I call Bridget and Spike to me.
“C’mon, time for us to go home.” Larry walks us back to our campsite. Right as I’m about to thank him for dinner and wish him a good night, I look across my campsite to the stream.
“Oh my gosh, Larry, look!”
A bear and two cubs are on the bank!
“That’s a grizzly,” Larry notes. “It’s not the one I saw this morning. This one is smaller and younger, and her cubs are younger, too.”
“You know, Larry . . . . That’s what Lena was barking about. Those bears walked right past us!”
Larry calls over to the girls at their tent. “Hey, girls! You wanna’ see some bears?”
They come running over. Together we watch as the mother grizzly fishes and her cubs romp up and down the slope behind her. The dogs stand still and watch, too. After a few minutes the three bears follow the lakeshore away from us, going toward another campground on the lake. The girls retreat to their tent. I thank Larry for dinner, and the crew and I go into the BLT. In a few minutes we’re in bed for the night.
I hear a commotion outside but I ignore it, figuring I’ll find out in the morning what’s going on. No way we’re going outside again tonight!
The next morning . . .
Larry tells me the grizzly mom and two cubs came back immediately after the crew and I went inside. “You wouldn’t believe how fast she came across that stream toward us. She crossed it in two leaps. The girls were back over here looking. They screamed and ran. I yelled for them to get in their car. See, if the bear attacks the car, they can always put it in gear and drive away.”
The bears didn’t come all the way up the slope to our campsites. Instead they took the path below, returning the way they came.
Larry continues his report. “Joe (the camp host) drove over. I told him I sent the girls to their car and he’d better go talk to them.”
Joe also told the girls they should sleep in their vehicle. I don’t imagine they were very comfortable in their little compact car. No wonder they were gone by daybreak!
Well, I haven’t seen an elk yet, but I can cross grizzly bears off my list!
When viewing the slideshow, look for the photo of the BLT, a little white dot nestled in the forest. I took the photo from across the lake. The photos of the grizzlies are poor because they were taken right before dark by a very excited photographer! I forgot to take a photo of the halibut cooking, so I took a pic of Larry’s T-bone supper the following evening.
P.S. Since this post was written, the grizzlies have visited the stream along our campsite every night!